Nearly 200 congressional Democrats sue Trump over emoluments

By Peter Weber

On Wednesday, a group of at least 196 Democratic members of Congress will file suit in federal court asking a judge to prevent President Trump or his successors from “accepting any benefits from foreign states without first obtaining congressional consent,” as stipulated in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit alleges that Trump illicitly accepts emoluments (payments or gifts) from foreign governments when diplomats book his hotels and governments grant him business trademarks, among other violations.

The lawsuit makes congressional Democrats — 30 senators and 166 House members — the third class of plaintiffs seeking to use the Constitution’s emoluments clause to force Trump to detail his business ties or properly wall off any conflicts of interest by selling his companies or putting them in a blind trust, rather than a trust managed by his sons that he is the sole beneficiary of and can access at will. On Monday, the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., filed a similar suit, claiming standing because their state-owned or -operated hotels and convention centers compete with Trump Organization properties, and on Friday, the Justice Department defended Trump from the third suit, filed by private individuals who own or book events at competing hotels and restaurants.

Legal scholars disagree on whether congressional Democrats, states attorney general, or private hoteliers have standing to sue Trump over potential emoluments clause violations. “The Framers of our Constitution gave members of Congress the responsibility to protect our democracy from foreign corruption by determining which benefits the president can and cannot receive from a foreign state,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, incoming dean of the U.C. Berkeley law school. “When the president refuses to reveal which benefits he is receiving — much less obtain congressional consent before accepting them — he robs these members of their ability to perform their constitutional role.”

Andy Grewal, a University of Iowa law professor who has been skeptical of the emoluments argument, says it will be hard for individual lawmakers in the minority party to get standing, even as a group. “Just because they can’t convince their peers doesn’t mean you can go to court to get what you want,” he said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is leading the effort in the Senate, said this is the largest group of lawmakers to sue a sitting president, explaining the unprecedented number by arguing that Trump’s businesses ties and alleged conflicts are also “truly unprecedented.” 

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